District 1 Commissioner Allen Armstrong has twice voted against a Blount County Commission resolution to hold a referendum of the people in Blount County on converting from the district system to the unit system of road maintenance. In the first vote on Jan. 15, the resolution passed 3-1 over his dissenting vote, following his unsuccessful effort to amend the resolution by attaching a 10-mill property tax to the measure. The amendment failed from want of a second.
In a position paper read into the minutes when the motion was last up for a vote on Feb. 11, he maintained he would support the unit system conversion if enough additional revenue can be raised to double the 2019 district road budget of $4.1 million. The vote was again 3-1, with Armstrong dissenting. The Blount Countian recently interviewed Armstrong in order to clarify and amplify his position. This article is based on that interview and the position paper he submitted to the commission before he cast his final negative vote. Excerpts summarized from position statement preamble
Armstrong wrote he will support the unit system conversion provided sufficient revenue is raised. In an interview last week he confirmed the dollar amount he has in mind is roughly $8 million.
He specifies he will support the unit system only after “squeezing every dollar out of existing spending” and going to the public to get their input on the need for more revenue. “We must convince the public that we are spending every dollar well and we can’t do more unless there is more revenue,” he wrote.
The resolution he opposed twice “does not address the revenue we need to make the unit system really work. I…will strongly oppose turning the roads in my district over to a system that does not have the money to make improvements in…resurfacing.
“I…support delaying this vote and taking more time to consider alternative approaches and timing.” Other concerns from position statement/interview
The unit system itself:
• unit system will not pave more miles of road than the district system without more revenue
• no detailed conversion plan exists
• no specification of how work center operations will be handled
• no firm estimate of number and cost of additional full-time positions required by the unit system
• responsiveness to the public not addressed
• total review of existing county spending needed before revenue initiative
• (from interview) would entail thorough review of expenditures including headcount and salaries of county departments, as well as item-by-item cost reduction efforts. Examples: (1) downsize courthouse headcount by cross training within departments; (2) reduce hours of operation at Palisades Park and thereby reduce manpower needs; charge for admission.
• then determine extent of new revenue need and identify sources: property tax, tag fees, local gas tax, dwelling unit fee/tax
Status of commission chairman:
• if commissioners are part time and chairman is full time, too much power is concentrated in chairman job
• if commissioners are full time, and are relieved of road maintenance, they can do the work of the chairman, so that job is not needed
• probate judge will be stand-alone job if commission chairman responsibility becomes a separate job
• specific changes to probate job need to be considered before the matter goes on a unit system referendum ballot
• changes could be made to relieve existing backlog pressure on two existing judges
• examples (from interview) include possibly moving child support cases from circuit court and traffic cases from district court to probate judge job
• raises question (from interview) of need for probate judge to be a qualified attorney
• 2020 census may prompt need to create a fifth district due to increasing population differential between existing districts
• county government could change to strong county administrator with five commissioners rotating the commission chairmanship
Timeline leading to conversion:
• Delay legislation calling for referendum until next year to allow time to generate more details on all aspects of unit system conversion.
• Include specific revenue measure as a part of the unit system referendum, with actual amount decided within coming year to 18 months (amount is unspecified at this time, but a 10-mill increase would produce approximately $3.9 million in new revenue for roads, according to Armstrong in interview).
• Schedule referedum at same time currently specified – November, 2020.
• Cost reduction measures and public education/participation on new revenue needed would proceed concurrently as referendum approaches.
• If the ballot measure passes authorizing conversion to unit system and collection of new taxes, accelerate conversion with goal of completing by 2022 or as soon thereafter as possible.
Specific quotes from Armstrong interview
“This [unit system initiative] is revamping government in Blount County. It’s creating new high-paying jobs. “
“If you want to know about feedback down here [District 1], people are irate about creating these high-paying jobs.”
[The unit system is a road maintenance efficiency measure, but] “we need to be looking at efficiency of county government overall.” [How long will that take to reduce cost adequately?] “I’d say maybe two budget cycles– two years– to get a lot of it, but reducing headcount will be by attrition, and of course, that part will take longer.”
“I’m firmly against a tax increase of any kind, but we’ve got to have more revenue to have any chance of doing the road maintenance job. A 10-mill increase would produce a $3.9 million annual increase in new revenue, and that’s almost double what we’ve got to work with now.”
“If you’re going to ask people to vote on something, you need to give them something to vote on that’s got a chance to succeed. Without more revenue, changing systems will not solve our problems. Under either system, unit or district, we’ve got to have more revenue to fix the roads.”